Rowing Center fast developing into an abandoned, Olympic-sized swamp

As one approaches the seashore at Schinias, the site of the Olympic Rowing Center, there is nothing to indicate that you are in a national park. The woods along the coast are strewn with trash – bags of garbage are even hanging from the trees. Cars are parked willy-nilly, tavernas, villas and swarms of mosquitoes greet the eye. On the beach itself there is more rubbish, dried seaweed and cigarette butts, as if it has never been cleaned. Today Schinias retains nothing of the glory of last year’s Olympic Games, when everything had been spotlessly cleaned, weeded, trimmed and buffed to a brilliant shine. Kathimerini visited Schinias to talk to local residents and visitors, and sought answers from Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia, head of the Schinias-Marathon National Park Management Organization Kimon Hadzibiros, and Marathon Mayor Vangelis Mexis. National park? Every weekend, Schinias is inundated with people who come to swim and picnic under the trees. When they leave, they leave behind their rubbish – some of it literally hanging in bags from the trees. Others light fires for a barbecue – even in the midst of the pine wood. Vangelis Stamatakis, a Marathon resident, has been coming here since he was a child. «We often pick up other people’s trash. When we contacted the municipality, we were told that the National Park Management Organization was responsible. They in turn referred us back to the municipality. If this wood catches fire, it will go up in smoke in five minutes. We thought things would change with the Olympics, but they haven’t,» he said. His friend, Antonis Papadakis, agrees. «Of the entire region, only Schinias has escaped the forest fires, but only tavernas flourish here. The owners cut down trees to give their customers parking space, or extend their premises. Soon they’ll be charging an entrance fee. The only thing that lets you know you are in a national park are the signs,» he said. The beach, its hinterland and the Olympic Rowing Center comprise the Schinias-Marathon National Park. «The fact is that people don’t respect the site,» said Hadzibiros, head of the park’s management and assistant professor at the National Technical University of Athens. «They leave rubbish lying around, light fires, drive their cars right down onto the beach, destroying the roots of the trees. Next year we will introduce a recycling program, with collection bins at the entrance to the beach, and a public awareness program. Nevertheless, responsibility for cleaning the beach lies with the Municipality of Marathon, since the creation of a national park does not absolve other authorities of their responsibilities. The National Park Management’s role is to coordinate.» Marathon Mayor Vangelis Mexis disagrees. «The National Park Management is responsible for Schinias. That is why it should be funded in order to work in tandem either with the municipality or the private sector, which will be responsible for cleaning the site,» he claims, adding: «The municipality, however, has done a major job. We have been sending in firefighters to extinguish picnickers’ fires and, a week ago, we changed the garbage dumpsters that someone had set fire to.» Another black mark is the gradual encroachment by illegal construction. Along the beachfront, just a few meters from the water’s edge, are seven tavernas – all of them dating from some years past. Last year, the Council of State called for their demolition. The regional government authority, which is responsible for carrying out the demolition, has done nothing. «Still, I don’t believe the tavernas do any harm. After all, the taverna owners themselves make sure their surroundings are clean,» said Mexis. «Perhaps the tavernas should be rebuilt to be more in keeping with the character of the area and take up less space,» he conceded. The houses along the beach – surrounded by high walls – are all legal and, in the presidential decree that established the park, are described as a settlement. The only way they can be removed is by expropriation, which would be too expensive. The deterioration of the Schinias pine forest and beach is an indication of the general problem of the post-Olympic use of the area. The fate of the Olympic Rowing and Canoe-Kayak Center is still up in the air. «The Rowing Center should be opened again to boost the income of the national park,» said Hadzibiros. «The park management has virtually no funds and just one staff member – the rest of us work without pay. I think the ministries concerned should get together to discuss a future use that is both profitable and environmentally sound. Firefighters should be made available to operate the very expensive firefighting equipment. And finally, at long last, the competition for flood-control works should be held. The former Environment and Public Works Ministry assigned this project to DEPOS, a state-run organization, which stopped work on the project after the design phase. If it rains this winter, the area will flood again,» he warned. The mayor has a different proposal. «We asked Alternate Culture Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia and the head of Olympic Properties, Christos Hadziemmanouil, to cede the rowing center to the municipality on a trial basis, to be used for cultural and sporting activities. The buildings on the site could be used to house university faculties related to environmental science. There are plenty of ideas about how to make use of Schinias, but the terms of the Natura 2000 treaty are strict and do not allow much margin for alternatives.»